The disturbing facts of Pat Tillman’s story are well-known, and yet we go over them repeatedly—in the face of the hagiography—in search of answers to unsettling questions. Pac-10 defensive player of the year as a senior at Arizona State; a record-breaking safety for the Arizona Cardinals; he left a multi-million dollar contract on the table to enlist with his brother in the U.S. Army (he became an Army Ranger): “My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars… and I really haven’t done a damn thing” (ESPN Classic).
In this, Tillman was one of those young Americans who enlisted in the armed forces following the attacks on 9/11. What was unusual was that he was a professional football player and a millionaire.
There was a time in the country’s history when the children of the rich and the offspring of powerful politicians felt compelled to defend the U.S. in times of peril. Theodore Roosevelt’s sons served during World War I and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sons served during World War II. George H.W. Bush and John F. Kennedy were decorated World War II veterans. Professional baseball players enlisted in droves during WW II. Ted Williams interrupted his career at its peak to serve during the Korean War.
But in our times, Pat Tillman was an oddity because he volunteered to serve. Even more, he was a notable exception who embarrassed us, who revealed, by his committed patriotism, the flimsy nature of our own.
Tillman died in combat on April 22, 2004. At first, the Army reported that he had died in an ambush. Subsequent investigations discovered that Tillman’s death was the result of friendly fire. In hindsight, the cover-up of the details of Tillman’s death seems understandable, and the irony surrounding his death seems inescapable.
The purest example of patriotism must be suppressed—it is too much for us to bear. And we cannot even claim the courage of our convictions: Tillman’s death was not the result of our intent, but only of our incompetence.
Comes now a bit of news that exposes the NFL as a modern church peopled by the usual scribes and Pharisees of old, who “outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within … are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Mat. 23:28) Senator Jeff Flake has revealed that from 2011 to 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense “paid $5.4 million for sponsorship deals with 14 NFL teams, many of which included in-game mentions.” Teams that took money for game presentations and patriotic ceremonies include the Falcons, Ravens, Bills, Colts, Vikings, Packers, Jets, Chiefs, Cowboys, Steelers and Dolphins among others. Rick Breitenfeldt, spokesman for the National Guard, defended the practice from the military point of view: “We have hundreds of [sponsorship agreements] with teams, including minor league baseball and at high schools. We have found that spending in sports to help us recruit in our 18-24 demographic works out for us” (ESPN 5/11/15).
The medieval church was brought down for selling indulgences as a means of salvation. When we have come to a time when it is necessary for U.S. armed forces to pay the NFL—abundantly rich, playing games in publicly subsidized stadiums—for patriotic services, this modern descendant of the Great Whore who made the inhabitants of the earth “drunk with the wine of her fornication” shall also be made desolate and naked, and be burned with fire, when the righteous inherit the earth. (Rev. ch. 17).
But just as a corrupt church could not tarnish the shining lights of Saint Francis or Saint Joan of Arc, the living example of Pat Tillman will remain—in spite of the NFL—in the hearts of all who love this nation and its people.